This happened when I was a young man, just shy of my twenty-first birthday. All my life, I’d lived in a New South Wales country town; I won’t say which one, only that it was within four hours of Sydney and has since been abandoned. The town was a combination of abattoirs and grain and white collars. If you listened hard enough, you could hear the cries of a million cows in the throes of death. You could smell the blood, hosed off the concrete and chased down a drain in the corner and – where did it end up, in the water supply? You could stare for hours at the tawny fields that in the wind swayed like they carried a secret message. You could eavesdrop on the local doctor and lawyer and estate agent, who complained about overwork and brooked no competition. It was that sort of town.
My father was a slaughterer at one of the abattoirs, my mother a teacher. I’d already met my wife Edie. We went to school together. Young people were escaping the town in droves, but Edie and I, we were naive and still not fully detached from our parents. We used to make love quietly in the tray of my father’s ute, parked of all places in my parents’ garage; or we’d hurdle the rusted wire encircling a neighbour’s farm and fuck, fully dressed, under a lightning-snapped eucalyptus.
Edie was working as a subeditor at the local paper, which was called The Local News. It had been around for 96 years and, so the story went, it began as a series of anonymous letters that reported on infidelities and indiscretions before growing into a newspaper edited by the wife of a well-known lawyer. Some of these letters were framed like declarations of principle on the wall in the office of the editor, Phil Stevens, whom Edie had convinced to give me a job as a cadet journalist. Soon I was writing copy about wheat subsidies and droughts, and doing vox pops about how to bake the perfect sponge or how a Greek orthodontist – a Greek Orthodox orthodontist – had just opened up in town.
One morning Phil asked me to drive a couple of hours to interview Nicholas Sharpe, a doctor with a reputation for philanthropy who’d been elected to the federal senate. Phil told me the story was pretty straightforward. Halfway between the newspaper’s offices and the senator’s estate was a sporting and business club, Pyrene, an air-conditioned oasis in the desert, he said, which was frequented by some of the men in town. The club, like the newspaper, was no longer seedy, but had always been exclusively for men. Lately, there had been some murmuring that this should change and Nick had taken the position that it should not.
Phil walked over to his wall, scanned the framed letters and handed one to me. Pyrene is older than the idea of this newspaper, he said. In exacting cursive, the framed letter I was holding contained a one-hundred-year-old rumour that the menfolk of the town were riding bareback to a house of ill-repute named for one of Hercules’ whores.
Over-steering in Phil’s Falcon, I kept an eye out for Pyrene on the road. I saw bovine skeletons and fields that had been furrowed to death, the odd farmhouse and historic village, but I arrived at Nick’s estate having somehow missed the club. The wrought iron gates swung open and I drove down the winding driveway to the house, which was a Victorian manor, painted green and cream. It wasn’t visible from the road. Its surrounds were lush and verdant, as if all of the water from the surrounding area drained onto the property.
Nick greeted me warmly. Still youthful at forty, he was dressed in an open-collared blue shirt and black slacks, relaxed yet formal in that politician’s way, at home and on guard. He shook my hand, cupping my elbow, and asked if I found the place okay. I took in the house and the second-storey balcony with its string of early Christmas lights. You get much more bang for your buck here than in Sydney, he said.
He offered to give me a tour of his garden and rhapsodised about his rosemary bush, which was rampant or decaying, depending on which part of it I focused. But I had to admit that, for rosemary, it occupied plenty of space. By the side of the house, we walked over damp earth to the trunk of an enormous tree, its base like a white rhinoceros, its lowest bough maybe seven metres from the ground. You know what this is? he asked. This is a swamp gum. Eucalyptus regnans. Native to Australia, of course. This is the tallest tree in New South Wales. And I think, as a species, Eucalyptus regnans is the third or fourth tallest in the world. So this is pretty impressive already, yes? I nodded. That’s not the most impressive thing about it, though. You want to know what the most impressive thing about this tree is? He patted its trunk to emphasise its sturdiness. History, he said. The most impressive thing is this tree has stood here, on this same spot, for three hundred years. Rain, hail, or shine, this tree has not budged. He shook his head and exclaimed, Three hundred years!, and then grew suddenly conscious of his enthusiasm and added, I can see you’re not a man who enjoys his horticulture.
We circled around to the back of the property, where two young boys were chasing each other about. The elder boy was perhaps nine, shirtless and rake-thin so that his defining feature was his ribcage; he was like a sketch of a thing that was one day going to be a man. The younger boy, about seven, had dark hair and was shorter but already more filled-out and adult. His face was sullen and his freckled skin had a pallor suggestive of anaemia. Nick said it was fantastic for his sons to grow up on a plot like this, with gums and grassy elevations and even a creek, if this drought would ever end. I looked off to where he was pointing and saw stagnant water just deep enough to wade into, bordered by reeds and dammed at intervals by low brick walls. He asked me what my parents did, and I told him, and he responded that his wife, a schoolteacher, was at work, and then he paused awkwardly before correcting himself: she was a school principal. He invited me into his office for what he termed the formal part of the interview.
We entered the living room, where I noted the Chesterfield sofa that looked like it had never been sat upon, the silent piano, the lamps without bulbs; it was a room for display purposes, televisionless and unused. Why aren’t the boys at school? I asked. Pupil-free day, Nick responded. An electronic buzz came from the intercom in the front corridor and he excused himself. I could hear him talking, but no words, just muffled intonations. He returned and told me that their cleaner, June, was at the front gate. She showed up whenever she felt like it. He seemed to suggest they kept her on as an act of charity, but everything in the room was gleaming. I said I didn’t mind waiting to begin, since it was better than being interrupted halfway through. Nick concurred. We strolled down the driveway to meet June together, and he told me the joke he and his wife had invented: June was named after the month in which she was due to be born, but of course she showed up in July, which isn’t really a name, and so her parents stuck with June. A winter woman, he mused idly. A winter woman in a summer country.
June appeared in the distance, holding the hand of a young child, and the waves of heat rising off the ground made them appear serpentine, or not fixed to this plane. When they got closer, it was clear that the child was a girl, probably six, her hair tied with pink bands and twisted into pigtails; her clothes were grass-stained and her shirt didn’t quite fit, leaving her abdomen exposed. June approached and smiled apologetically, her eyes flitting nervously to me, and Nick expressed surprise that she’d brought her daughter. He addressed the little girl, asking her name, and she hid behind June’s leg, her corrugated brow appearing beside the curve of her mother’s hip. June answered that her name was Juniper. Juniper. That was all she said. That’s a lovely name, Nick cooed. And to June: She can play with the boys while you clean.
Inside the cool of the house, Nick told June that she should concentrate on the kitchen, bathrooms and floors, that if she could get through that in a couple of hours it would be fantastic, then his wife would be home and she would give June a lift back to the town camp. June nodded at this, something cowed and clandestine about it, as if she were afraid to shape words in front of me, as if speaking would give something away.
We followed as Nick strode through the house to the rear of the estate, where the boys were sheltering from the heat in a gazebo about a hundred metres away. They were both shirtless now, one of them kneeling, prodding at something on the ground, maybe an insect. Their father called to them, a loud whistle followed by their names, Patterson and Will, and they raced to where we stood, bounding over the sward of grass and vaulting the stagnant water. When they drew near, they were out of breath and the younger one’s cheeks were flushed. Their eyes fell upon the young girl and I could see what they were thinking: that she was a burden with which they would be saddled, an irritation that would interrupt whatever game they were playing. Where are your shirts? Nick asked, chuckling. The younger boy knelt and retrieved a leaf and tore it in half. In the gazebo, the older boy replied.
Nick extended his hand to Juniper; the little girl looked at her mother and June smiled kindly, as if to indicate that it was alright, or necessary, and then Juniper held Nick’s hand. Juniper, he said in a singsong voice, these are my boys. The big one, that’s Pat, and the little guy with the sour face, that’s Will. They’re going to play with you while your mummy does a bit of work for us. Is that okay? Juniper’s eyes were round and moist and she nodded in the same way her mother had nodded. Squatting behind Juniper like a catcher behind a batter, Nick encouraged his sons to shake her hand and say hello, which they did, although they averted their gazes. Nick ushered them away and the three children trudged toward the gazebo, glancing over their shoulders to see if the adults were still watching.
June began to vacuum the living room floors and Nick shut the door to his office and apologised for the way the day was progressing. He sat behind his desk; he was on his guard again, a public figure in a private office. His medical degree was framed on the wall behind him, as was a letter titled The Local News, matching the set that was hanging in Phil’s office. You have one of the letters, I observed, placing my voice recorder on the desk beside an old photograph of his wife and children. Has the interview started? he asked. If you want, I replied, and began to record. Yes, I have the very first letter from the woman who founded The Local News, he enunciated. I think it’s a part of the story of this country, particularly of this part of the country. It’s important to understand your own history, even the jokey bits. Everything serious in Australia begins as a joke, doesn’t it? I watched him replay that rhetorical question in his head. If you’re going to use that, he suggested, drop the last bit.
I asked about Pyrene, and his exordium was all about how he was a vocal champion for what he called women’s rights issues. But even so, he said, this was not a women’s rights issue. What it was, he said, was a question of tradition. History. The swamp gum on his land had been there for 300 years and, even though Eucalyptus regnans belonged in Victoria and Tasmania, this one was in New South Wales. He didn’t know how it got there, in New South Wales, but it wasn’t going to budge. In fact, the whys and wherefores didn’t really matter because that’s the way it had been for generations. That’s the way it should be, he argued. We shouldn’t judge the past. History should be remembered. Traditions should be preserved. The tree shouldn’t be asked to change and neither should Pyrene; they were both fixtures of the landscape. Besides, he wouldn’t have an issue with a women’s-only club opening up. This was equality, not sexism. This was the beauty of a free country: private institutions could do what they wanted.
June was using the vacuum cleaner just outside the office; its lowing and the knock-knock of its bumper against the door irritated Nick, who rose from his chair and raised his voice to speak over the machine. And if you’re going to open Pyrene to women, he said, why wouldn’t you just open it to everyone? At the door to his office, he paused and rephrased. He meant to say, he said, that Pyrene was a prestigious and exclusive club, and any man who could afford the membership fees could become a member. Nick yanked his office door open, as if hoping to catch June in the act of listening. The noise of the vacuum died and the apparatus ground to a halt, fell to the floor, was abandoned, and I was surprised to see that June was sprinting, seemingly fleeing, her back to us, her footsteps echoing through the house.
Over his shoulder, Nick shot me a perturbed glance and without a word he jogged after June. He was giving chase, but she was running towards something, not away. I snatched up my voice recorder and shoved it in my pocket and sort of loped through the house behind him. We stopped when we saw Nick’s sons by the creek. June was almost upon them. The older boy, Pat, still shirtless, was standing on one of the low dams and resting both hands on top of a long stick, and his brother, Will, the sullen one, was standing among the reeds and holding something in his hand. June was almost upon them. Oh God, whispered Nick, and I realised what Will had in his hand: Juniper’s grass-stained shirt. Nick and I were sprinting then, side by side, and we saw Juniper’s body lying face-down in the shallow water, muck and algae collecting in the fluting that divided her back, which was covered in criss-crossed scratches.
June was wailing. She lifted her daughter clear of the water. Cradled in her mother’s arms, the little girl was all skin and hair, her pigtails undone; Will was wearing her pink bands around his wrist. Get her over here, barked Nick, rolling his sleeves up in the way you see doctors do in the movies. Will moved aside and let June past. She laid her daughter down on the grass beside the creek and took a step back. It was clear that the little girl wasn’t breathing, her bare chest still and somewhat concave right in the middle. Nick brushed hair from her cheeks and turned her head and made a spout of her mouth. Water drained out and pooled beside her. He pinched her nose and cupped his mouth over hers, breathing into her, and he pumped her sternum with the heel of his palm, counting the compressions out loud (one, two, three), up to thirty, and then he began again. It was strange standing there, with a child’s life in the balance, and being nothing but a spectator, listening to Nick’s hoarse counting (one, two, three), watching him place his ear to the girl’s mouth and suddenly becoming conscious of my own breathing, the breath of the wind in the trees, maybe the trill of a lorikeet, maybe not, and the sun burning my skin, as the counting went on for one minute, maybe two. The little girl coughed weakly. Nick’s face crumpled for a moment, as if he was about to be overcome, and he turned Juniper’s head to the side again. Saliva and sputum and water oozed from her mouth. She coughed again and gasped and moved her lips as if she’d just swallowed something disgusting. Nick rolled her onto her side and stepped away from her and June knelt and put Juniper’s slimy hand to her chin, and she whispered to her, promises and cajolement and gratitude.
Nick turned to his sons, who were fixed in their positions, and his look was one not of rage but of horror, of incomprehension. I watched the thought flicker in his mind and recede, as if he were unwilling to contemplate it. He took Juniper’s shirt from Will. What happened? he asked gently. She fell into the water, replied Pat. I tried to fish her out with my stick. I couldn’t. Is that what happened? Nick eyed Will, who nodded big and boyish. Okay. It’s okay. You go and play. The boys headed for the gazebo and Nick handed the shirt to June and walked back to the house.
Juniper lay in the recovery position a while and then, with a bewildered look on her face, sat up slowly. June pulled her shirt over her head, examining the cuts on her back, the mother flinching with the daughter’s pain. What happened? June asked. Those boys push you into the dirty water? Mm, Juniper said. Am I in trouble? She began to cry. No, baby berry. No, of course not. Shh. Shh. June hugged her and stroked her hair and then scooped her up and carried her to the house. I walked beside them. Did they hold you down with the stick? I asked Juniper. She nodded. Didn’t do nothing else to you, did they? her mother said tremulously, and this time Juniper shook her head. June kissed her brow and wondered out loud whether she needed to go to the hospital; I replied that that was probably a question for Nick.
Nick was sitting in his office, behind his desk, writing. His face was clouded and his sleeves were creased and unrolled, the damp cuffs loose around his wrists. June sat Juniper down in the chair from which I’d been conducting my interview. She asked whether or not Juniper needed to go to the hospital. Nick said he doubted it and then gave a firmer answer: No, there’s no need for that. Juniper says your boys pushed her, June said (she pronounced it pushtah). They held her down with a stick, I added quietly. Nick glanced from June, to Juniper, to me, and he suddenly seemed tired, his brow gone lithographic, as if he just realised that he hadn’t had enough sleep. Juniper said this or you said this? Nick asked. Juniper, he began with his singsong cadence. Did Pat and Will push you into the creek? He shook his head and Juniper shook her head too, a perfect mirror, her features impassive. There was no tell-tale sign that this was any less the truth than the accusations she’d affirmed earlier. I pictured Will, with her pink bands around his wrist, and the expression on Nick’s face in the aftermath.
He signed the cheque that he was writing and pushed it across the desk. I read it and watched June read it, three hundred dollars, her eyes narrow and her shoulders taut and her jaw clenched. Oh, sorry, Nick said, withdrawing the cheque and tearing it in two. I forgot. He stood and took down not his medical degree but the framed letter on the wall; hidden behind the gossip of yesteryear was a small safe. Obscuring his actions with his body, he turned the dial and counted out some cash (one, two, three) and shut the safe’s door. He walked over to our side of the desk and, smiling that smile that adults reserve for children, he handed the cash to Juniper. June looked livid, only for a moment, and then she took Juniper’s hand, the one with the cash in it, and led her out of the office. In a friendly tone of voice, Nick called out that he hoped to see her again soon.
Once they’d left, he apologised again for the way the day had progressed. He told me that everything that happened, other than the formal interview, was off the record (that was always implied, he said). I responded that that wasn’t how it worked. He frowned and asked if we were finished and I said yes we were, and he shook my hand and wished me luck. I got into my car, or rather Phil’s car, and headed back down the driveway. I caught up with June and Juniper near the front gates. Rolling down my window, I asked June if she wanted to report the incident to the police or give an interview for the paper. Do you live around here? she asked, laughing bitterly. Would you like a lift home then? I offered. She inspected Phil’s Falcon, the jalopy that had done a hundred thousand country miles, and she scanned my face, and perhaps she caught sight of something that she didn’t like. No, best not, she said eventually.
It was dark when I returned to town. Phil heard the familiar rumbling of his Falcon and rushed out of the newspaper’s offices. Edie appeared a moment later and kissed me and draped her arms around me. Steady on, said Phil, circumnavigating the car and checking for dents. Edie said that when I took so long to return, they feared that perhaps I had crashed in the middle of nowhere, or otherwise had stopped off at Pyrene and decided to make it my permanent home. Phil asked me how the interview had gone. I told him that I had a new story to pitch, and he raised his eyebrows and suggested we all head into his office.
Again I sat there, staring at the framed letters on the wall, while Phil poured himself a cup of percolator coffee and Edie leaned against the door. Over the slurp-and-gulp of his coffee drinking, I began to relate the story to him. As I continued, I could see the concern, or perturbation, in his face. Even before I reached the part where Nick told me everything was off the record, Phil had had enough; his palm went up and he placed his coffee cup down on a stack of papers on his desk. We’re not running that, he said. Nick invited us into his home to do a piece about Pyrene – which is why I sent you, a cadet journalist. Write the story you were told to write. I argued my point and Edie supported me, bouncing back and forth on the balls of her feet, her hands clasped at the small of her back, but Phil had made up his mind. He would not be swayed.
Edie and I trundled over to the local pub and ordered steaks and sat in the corner. Huddled together, we listened to the voice recorder, which had continued taping in my pocket, capturing the sounds of the event, the counting, the sheer terror and desolation and ordinariness of the thing. She kissed me when the tape finished, as if she was trying to banish its memory, to reclaim this evening for our youth, and then we parted in a sort of melancholy way and went to our separate bedrooms and slept soundly in the homes of our parents. We married shortly after that, a church wedding; when Edie fell pregnant, we decided to move to Sydney so we could find better jobs.
We drove a circuitous route out of town, as if we were bidding it a long farewell. At dusk, we passed a grand building in the otherwise dry, slaloming landscape. What’s that? asked Edie. It’s Pyrene, I said. How had I missed it before, with its dome and colonnade and arch, its dribbling fountain in the forecourt, its parking lot with a smattering of luxury cars? The building must have been somebody’s folly when it was built, a stately institution in the middle of nowhere, but my notes had said that they didn’t know whose. And I couldn’t shake the sight of Pyrene, nor its looming quality; once seen, it dominated the landscape, as if its shadow stretched farther than it should have, as if through some topographical trick it would suddenly reappear in my mirror long after it had passed from view.
This story is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.
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